Writers Guild of America members voted overwhelmingly to give the union’s negotiating committee power to strike if ongoing talks fail to result in a new contract with CBS by March 1, when the current deal expires.

The contract covers 275 news staffers at CBS-owned and -operated facilities KCBS-TV and KNX radio, Los Angeles; WCBS-TV and WCBS radio, N.Y.; WBBM-TV and WBBM radio in Chicago; and TV and radio network workers based in Washington nd promotional writers in L.A. and New York.

Members voted late last week, with 88% of those casting ballots voting in favor of the strike authorization.

This initial authorization is typically the first step in any contract negotiation. The action only gives the committee the power to make the strike call, it doesn’t assure a strike will follow.

Talks between the network and the Guild began Feb. 2. The current contract, a three-year deal, expires at midnight on March 1.

First series of negotiations have not gone smoothly. Guild negotiators received a preliminary contract from CBS, which is said to include provisions to cut staff, cut Guild jurisdiction and change perimeters of the medical plan.

“It was shocking that CBS, through its onerous proposals, is willing to undermine the professionalism by seeking to increase work loads at will, to move toward the broad use of temporaries at lower pay without fringe benefits and to take other drastic steps that would place an impossible burden on an already bare-bones staff,” said Mona Mangan, the Guild’s head negotiator and executive director of the WGA East.

Mangan stressed that union members are not willing to give up rights won in other contracts.

CBS negotiators were in transit yesterday and could not be reached. A network source called the move by the Guild “posturing” and labeled it a typical phase in contract negotiations.

The WGA has struck CBS before in 1987.

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